JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – On the night of July 19, 1977, Susan Burns and her mother were arrested on Cooper Avenue by emergency crews as they were returning home to Tanneryville after “Bingo Night.”
Warned that they could not enter Tanneryville because of floodwaters, they were sent to a nearby gas station where a neighborhood family agreed to take them in for the night.
In an interview for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s Oral History Project about the 1977 Johnstown flood, Burns said it took him two days to learn of the fate of family members in the house. of Tanneryville.
“They told me they found my husband and my stepfather near the mill, and they found my daughter in East Seward,” Burns told Conrad Suppes, who conducted the interviews there. has five years for JAHA as part of its Eagle Scout project.
Looking back on the last of Johnstown’s Three Great Floods, the Oral History Project’s first-hand accounts offer unique insights.
The flooding was the result of several severe thunderstorms on the night of July 19-20, dropping up to a foot of rain in some areas.
“These storms took nearly identical tracks as they moved through Cambria County,” the National Weather Service website explains. “So the same areas received rain from multiple thunderstorms. This phenomenon is known as “formation” – as storms follow one another like train cars on a track. »
Solomon’s Run, Sam’s Run, Peggy’s Run and other small streams became raging torrents – destroying homes, businesses and roads on their way to the overflowing Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers. Property damage reached $300 million and 85 people died.
So many autopsies…
Burns’ family members were among 40 flood victims in the Tanneryville neighborhood when the Laurel Run Reservoir Dam and several others failed, sending a deluge of floodwaters that leveled homes.
Suppes also interviewed pathologist Dr Sydney Goldblatt before his death in January this year. Goldblatt was laboratory director and chief pathologist at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in 1977.
Like many in the hilltop suburbs, as he made his way to the hospital that day, Goldblatt only knew that there was a heavy rainstorm and the power had been out overnight. As he approached Conemaugh Hospital from Southmont, authorities stopped him and told him the roads below were closed due to flooding. He explained who he was and was allowed to go to the hospital.
“What I was greeted with when I got to the hospital was that I had about five bodies in the morgue – people who were killed in the flood,” Goldblatt recalled in his interview. “I had a body impaled on a tree.
“Over the next week, I performed over 70 autopsies on people killed in the flood. I recovered bodies a month later.
Most of Goldblatt’s work took place in a temporary morgue set up in the Richland High School parking lot.
With a flood as sudden and violent as that of Johnstown in 1977, Goldblatt said it was sometimes difficult to determine the cause of death.
Using the victim impaled in a tree as an example, he explained: “Death may not have been caused by drowning; death may have been caused by trauma.
It was also difficult to identify victims who were taken away from their homes or other locations.
Cambria City neighborhood resident Susan Brett was among neighbors who made a grisly discovery while assessing damage on Power Street near the town garage.
“My dad found out about this person,” Brett said. “He was a man who had floated the whole way from Hornerstown. He and two little boys were killed in the flood.
Brett said she spent the night of the flooding on the second floor of the family’s Chestnut Street home, while waters filled the basement, rising 3ft into the first floor. The family spent weeks cleaning up and repairing the damage. They were at home cleaning when the first offer of assistance arrived.
“Someone came to our door and said, ‘They feed people in St. Rochus. Go down and eat something,” she said.
The emergency feeding center set up by parishioners of Reverend Stephen Slavik and St. Rochus Roman Catholic Church soon turned into a flood relief station, complete with showers, supplies cleaning and more,” Brett said.
The cleaning took weeks.
Brett said the basement of the house had no outside entrance, so all the mud had to be shoveled through the windows which were 6 feet above the ground. Mud was everywhere throughout the house, she said. Years later, the family would move a cabinet or other furniture and discover “flood mud” under or behind the room.
“I would say if it happened again, I would close the door behind me and walk away because I would never want to face this again,” Brett said.
The 1977 flood changed the face of Johnstown forever. JAHA’s website states, “Many downtown businesses damaged by the flooding have not reopened or have moved to the suburbs. Employment at Bethlehem Steel fell by 4,000. Between 1970 and 1980, the city’s population fell from 42,221 to 34,221, a 19.4% decline, and the 1977 flood was one of the main reasons.
But in a statement provided to the Tribune-Democrat, JAHA President and CEO Richard Burkert said more research also blamed the slowdown on other factors.
Bethlehem Steel’s demise was part of the overall decline of American steel, Burkert wrote, citing Patrick Farabaugh’s 2021 book, “Disastrous Floods and the Demise of Steel in Johnstown.”
“Farabaugh argues that the unforeseen disaster was not the cause of the rapid downward spiral of Johnstown’s steel industry,” Burkert wrote. “Rather than being caused by the 1977 flood, Farabaugh cites causes of industrial decline and failure as mismanagement, international competition, unwillingness to invest in capital improvements, and wages and rules unsustainable work.”
The downtown decline also has root causes that were accelerated by the flooding, he said.
“With the development of better highways and the exodus of residents from the city’s historic areas and upper floors of downtown buildings to newer suburbs, major commercial anchors have moved out of the downtown in favor of of locations in the new strip malls and (after 1974) the Richland Mall,” Burkert said. “The 1977 flood only accelerated this trend.”
Burkert also praised Visit Johnstown and other local groups for working to change the town’s image.
“The exodus of shops and people was part of a national trend, as was the current interest in revitalizing downtown as a true place of dining and entertainment,” he wrote. “For over 130 years, we have been known as Flood City.
“It is hoped that our community can move beyond its flooding to become better known as a desirable and interesting place to visit, work and live.”